Afore Night Come by David Rudkin

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RSC programme, 1962.

Not a review, this, you can’t really review a stage play you’ve never seen. Following the re-viewing of David Rudkin’s White Lady I’ve gone back to some of the published plays. If all you know of Rudkin’s work is his television drama, the plays are instructive for showing the consistency of his themes across the years. The recent resurgence of interest in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 has seen Rudkin’s work included among that group of film and TV dramas that Rob Young memorably labelled Old Weird Britain (after Greil Marcus and The Old, Weird America), a loose affiliate that would include films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and television works by Nigel Kneale, Alan Garner (The Owl Service and Red Shift) and the MR James adaptations, one of which, The Ash Tree, was also written by Rudkin.

If the Old Weird Britain lies at an intersection between different dramatic forms—ghost story, horror story, science fiction, historical drama—then not all of Rudkin’s work would fall into the intersection, but two of the plays—The Sons of Light and his first staged work, Afore Night Come—could be coaxed into the charmed circle: The Sons of Light, with its sinister human experiments taking place underground, has ties to Artemis 81, while Afore Night Come is another piece about (intentional or otherwise) human sacrifice in rural England. I hadn’t read Afore Night Come until last week, and was struck by its similarity to John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970), a more deliberately ritualistic piece of work. In its first act Afore Night Come is an almost documentary-like account of a day in the life of workers hired to pick the pear harvest in an orchard outside Birmingham; the eruption of violence in the second act is certainly foreshadowed but seems less premeditated than in Robin Redbreast, a factor which has apparently shocked many audiences. During its performances in the early 1960s the tendency was to see the play in the light of Harold Pinter and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it’s only in retrospect that a connection with more generic works emerges. There’s also a connection to White Lady via the pesticide spraying about which the workers are continually warned, and whose advent coincides with the moments of violence.

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Sight and Sound, August 2010. Illustration by Becca Thorne.

A couple of other things are worth noting: until 1968 all the plays performed in Britain were vetted by the Lord Chamberlain’s office who would routinely strike out any material deemed offensive or irreligious. Knowing this I was surprised by the recurrence of the word “fuck” in Rudkin’s script, and also the hint of same-sex attraction between two of the male characters, a detail that would usually have been removed. It seems that plays pre-1968 could be performed without censorship if the theatre was declared to be a private club for the evening (a similar state of affairs helped evade some film censorship) which is what happened with Afore Night Come in 1962. Given this, and the incident of a decapitated head being rolled across a London stage (probably the first since the Jacobeans, says Rudkin), it’s easy to see why audiences at the time might have felt assaulted, although the play still won the Evening Standard Drama Award that year. Sexual ambiguity/ambivalence or outright homosexuality have been a continual thread in Rudkin’s drama yet he’s seldom been given much credit for this pioneering work. A year after Afore Night Come there was Rudkin’s first play for television, The Stone Dance, a piece which sounds like another potential addition to the works in the Old, Weird Britain catalogue. Rudkin describes it thus:

A Revivalist pastor pitches his crusade tent within a Cornish stone circle. His repressed son becomes sexually obsessed with an outward-going local boy, and suffers a hysterical loss of speech. A storm blows the pastor’s tent away, and amid the stones, their primal purity reasserted, by the boy’s accepting touch the son is healed.

I believe that, prior to this, no tv play had overtly treated homosexual emotions as a central theme. (In Britain at this time, any gay sex could incur a prison sentence of up to two years.)

Many of the TV plays from the 1960s are now lost so there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see this, a shame considering that Michael Hordern and John Hurt were the leads. No guarantee either that we’ll see any staging of the more interesting plays like The Sons of Light and The Triumph of Death which seem to be too eccentric for theatre directors. The scripts can at least be picked up relatively cheaply. To date there’s only Afore Night Come that seems to be revived with any regularity. Michael Billington, a long-time champion of Rudkin, reviews the Young Vic production from 2001 here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

April

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April, Works in a Garden (1614) by Jan Wildens.

The cruellest month in paintings. Snowy scenes abound for this time of year but I’ve avoided those.

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Twelve Months of Flowers: April (no date) by Jacob van Huysum.

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April Love (c. 1855) by Arthur Hughes.

Continue reading “April”

Robin Redbreast by John Bowen

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This TV play from 1970 was one of the films I watched last year at Halloween, a very poor bootleg copy from the BBC archives with a timecode running away in one corner. So it’s been a surprise to find the BFI releasing it so soon after on DVD. I never saw Robin Redbreast originally, and hadn’t even heard about it until a friend with a similar taste for the outré and neglected told me to look out for it. The main reason for the BFI picking out a rather obscure Play for Today for reissue has been its rising cult status in the sub-genre of British rural or folk horror. Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973) are the more notable examples, although in tone and presentation Robin Redbreast is closer to Nigel Kneale’s Murrain (1975), another TV play that’s currently available as a bonus on the Beasts DVD collection.

The usual plot of this kind of drama concerns the arrival of an outsider in a rural community whose presence arouses suspicion and conflict. Robin Redbreast reverses this by having its metropolitan outsider, Norah, move to the country only to find her neighbours are welcoming to the point of being interfering. In time the interference starts to become oppressive, and unfortunately this is one of those dramas where to reveal much more would be to spoil the unwinding of the story. There’s nothing supernatural here, like The Wicker Man a mystery grades in its final moments to horror. With little in the way of cinematic atmosphere it’s left to a detailed script and the performances to do the work. All the leads are excellent, especially Anna Cropper as the beleaguered Norah, and Bernard Hepton as the quietly sinister Fisher.

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Bernard Hepton.

Robin Redbreast was originally filmed and broadcast in colour but the BBC had a habit of wiping many of their tapes after broadcast so what we’re left with is a telerecording on 16mm black-and-white film. This isn’t ideal but it does have the effect of giving all the scenes more consistency. Like most dramas of the period, interior shots were done in the electronic studio while exteriors were shot on film, a technique which was taken for granted at the time but which looks uneven today. The DVD is still superior to the bootleg copy that was doing the rounds. In one of the extras writer John Bowen discusses the origin of the play, explaining how a BBC editor was horrified by a plot detail concerning female contraception. This led to the script being dropped by the suspense series for which it was written, and subsequently taken up by director James MacTaggart for the new Play for Today strand. Play for Today ran for 14 years, producing many impressive dramas but mostly offering a solid diet of social realism. Robin Redbreast is one of a handful of stranger works that crept onto the screen, along with the peerless Penda’s Fen (1974), and Alan Garner’s adaptation of his novel, Red Shift (1978). Now that the BFI has exhausted the BBC’s more obvious ghost and horror fare I’m hoping that some of the less generic films may find a new audience on DVD.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin

Weekend links 172

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Complete Stop (2008), an oil painting by Gregory Thielker from his Under the Unminding Sky series.

• For Halloween last year I watched a very poor copy of a BBC Play For Today production, Robin Redbreast, a piece of rural horror by John Bowen which received a single screening in 1970. That poor copy—black-and-white, timecoded, multi-generation video—has been circulating for years, so it’s good to know that the BFI will be releasing Robin Redbreast on DVD in time for this year’s Halloween. This might be news enough but the following month the BFI also releases Leslie Megahey’s stunning adaptation of Schalcken the Painter in a dual DVD/Blu-ray edition. I wrote a short review of the latter film last October.

• Mixes of the week: August Sun High from The Advisory Circle, and John Wizards’ Quietus Mix “African music, R&B and chamber pop, filtered through gentle electronic arrangements that cross-pollinate with South African house, Shangaan electro and dub”.

• A trailer has surfaced for The Counselor, a film by Ridley Scott from an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy. Trailers are too spoilerish so I’m refusing to watch it but for those interested Slate has the details.

Luckhurst makes an admirable attempt to link Lovecraft’s most frustrating writing tic to this theme of the unknown when he claims that Lovecraft’s “catachresis”—deliberate muddling of language through the use of mixed metaphors and the like—is a tool he uses to bolster the atmosphere of futility in the face of “absolute otherness.” The trauma of encountering something so far outside the realms of imagination triggers a collapse of logic in the language itself.

Cate Fricke reviews The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft, a collection from Oxford University Press edited by Roger Luckhurst.

• “Contemporary audiences found it too weird, too wonky and even borderline distasteful…” Xan Brooks goes looking for the locations from Powell & Pressburger’s 1943 film, A Canterbury Tale.

• Two songs from Julia Holter’s forthcoming album, Loud City Song: World and Maxim’s I. Also unveiled this week: Evangeline, a new track by John Foxx & Jori Hulkkonen.

• Have Ghost, Will Find: Colin Fleming on William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, The Ghost Finder.

• At PingMag: Urban Calligraphy: Turning the Streets into Big, Loud Canvases.

• Sex, Spirit, and Porn: Conner Habib talks to Erik Davis.

Serendip-o-matic: Let Your Sources Surprise You

The Pronunciation of European Typefaces

Twilight (2004) by Robin Guthrie & Harold Budd | Luminous (2009) by John Foxx & Robin Guthrie | Cling (2011) by Robin The Fog